If the headline to this article sounds familiar, you’re probably old enough to remember the trademarked ad slogan of the supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer (i.e., “Enquiring minds want to know”). The slogan was trademarked in 1981 and was used heavily throughout that decade. When the Smithsonian Science Education Center promotes learning science through inquiry, it has something other than gossip in mind. According to the Center, “Inquiry-based science is sometimes conflated with ‘hands-on’ science. While we know that actively engaging children with ‘hands-on’ science is important, it isn’t enough. Inquiry-based science employs the diverse practices scientists use to study the natural world. A well-designed, inquiry-based curriculum is appropriate for all ages of learners and effectively teaches science content while developing scientific habits of mind at the same time.” The Center suggests one of the best ways for students to learn science is by using the FERA learning cycle. FERA stands for Focus, Explore, Reflect, and Apply.
According to the Center, “Children can learn problem-solving skills using methods similar to the ones scientists employ that will lead them through parallel stages of discovery.” Using the FERA learning cycle, children can learn to develop their own questions, collect evidence, form a decision, construct explanations, and communicate logically and clearly. As the acronym notes, Focus is the step. At this stage, students need to “focus on a topic, generating interest and conceptualizing what learners already know about the topic.” In the Explore stage, students “explore objects, organisms, and scientific phenomena that build on prior knowledge.” During the Reflect stage, students “reflect on observations and data, revisit prior ideas, and develop or refine explanations.” In the final Apply stage, students “apply understanding of science concepts to new situations and prepare to repeat the cycle.” The ultimate goal of the Center is to excite students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.
STEM subjects are often considered difficult, boring, or both. The Smithsonian Science Education Center believes STEM subjects don’t need to be boring and that inquiry-based science can be fun as well as educational. Getting students interested in STEM subjects is matter of national importance. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthew Ferremi (@MFerremi14) reported, “While educators in public and private schools are emphasizing STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — roughly 2.4 million jobs with that focus are unfilled across the country, according to a 2019 report from the National Association of Manufacturing. The report forecasts that nearly 3.5 million STEM-related jobs will need to be filled by 2025.” In the post-pandemic economy, STEM-related jobs will once again be in demand. Tracy Hogan, an associate professor of education at Adelphi, told Ferremi, “I think we have to try to make STEM more fun for students. One way to do that is by incorporating art into STEM.” Both STEM and STEAM approaches leverage cross-discipline learning. When students see how different disciplines, including art, come to together to solve problems, they are more likely to find those subjects interesting.
I am a big proponent of project-based learning. Several years ago, a few colleagues and I founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — a project-based, problem-solving approach to STEM education helping schools near where we live demonstrate to students that STEM subjects can be fun and applicable in their lives. We believe learning how to solve everyday problems will help students in every aspect of their lives by teaching them to think critically about how they can overcome challenges. Working together in group projects can help students learn soft skills as well as helping them understand larger social problems that need addressing. Project-based learning is “hands-on” and closely resembles inquiry-based learning recommended by the Smithsonian Science Education Center.
One goal all educators have is to keep their students engaged. Laura Ascione (@eSN_Laura) reports, “An engaging learning experience in which students are fully immersed in the content is driven by six variables, according to new research. The State of Engagement 2019 report, from edtech SaaS provider GoGuardian, features insight from hundreds of students, teachers, school leaders, and IT administrators to identify the specific factors contributing to an engaging learning experience.” The six variables that shape student experiences are:
- Classroom management. “Classroom management helps students know the protocols for interacting with their teachers in a productive and effective way. This enables students to engage in the learning experience more fully; simultaneously, students who are engaged also require less management.”
- Teacher effectiveness. “Teacher effectiveness is demonstrated by a teacher’s instructional practices. This could include modeling new skills, adjusting to student learning needs and checking for understanding. Related to this: teacher energy, attitude and expectations shape the extent to which students engage in the learning experience.”
- Teacher digital literacy levels. “Teacher digital literacy levels range drastically and impact how edtech solutions are implemented in the classroom. A teacher’s ability to use education technology to enable higher levels of thinking shapes the way students learn from digital content.”
- Nurturing school environment. “Nurturing school environments facilitate trust and empathy amongst students and between a student and teacher. This enables students to feel comfortable communicating their needs, making mistakes, and asking questions.”
- Student motivation. “A student’s interest and intrinsic motivation to learn influences his or her engagement.”
- Home and personal life. “Personal life and home situation impact how a student participates in the learning experience. These positive or negative factors impact engagement levels.”
It’s worth stressing that none of those variables relates to subject matter. In another article, Ascione suggests “maker spaces” could prove useful in getting students engaged, especially in STEAM subjects. She explains, “Maker education and makerspaces help students become more aware of challenges around them, and maker education also helps students become more equipped to tackle those challenges and change the world for the better. Makerspaces give students open-ended, interactive experiences that give students freedom to explore creation and solutions to various problems. It is often cross-curricular, bringing in various core subjects and helping students build strong soft skills, or employability skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.” I’m not sure there is a distinction between project-based learning and maker education other than maker education features a designated maker space in which students can learn. Like project-based learning, maker education works best when it tackles real-world challenges. Ascione explains, “Aligning maker activities with community causes gives students the opportunity to become more active citizens and make more meaningful connections between what they do and the needs of the community.”
I’m convinced STEM (or STEAM) education can be fun and engaging. It’s imperative we give our children and our country the best chance for a brighter future. Project-based learning can go a long way towards achieving that goal. The Smithsonian Science Education Center insists critical thinking is one of the most important skills children can learn. It reports, “93% of business and nonprofit leaders are primarily interested in a job candidate’s ‘demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” As a result, the Center concludes, “An inquiry-based education paves the way for effective learning in science.”
 Staff, “Why Inquiry,” Smithsonian Science Education Center.
 Staff, “Learning Science Through Inquiry,” Smithsonian Science Education Center.
 Matthew Ferremi, “Can STEM classes be fun?” LI Herald, 30 January 2020.
 Laura Ascione, “How do you create an engaging learning experience?” eSchool News, 7 January 2020.
 Laura Ascione, “STEM, STEAM, and makerspaces–oh my!” eSchool News, 3 February 2020.